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Miriam Lord: Martin unveils brainstorm as another storm brews over Zappone posting

Coalition not quite smelling of roses as Taoiseach visits Botanic Gardens

Creating Our Furore: A National Conversation on Preferment in Ireland was launched by the Taoiseach on Wednesday afternoon in the Botanic Gardens.

Or was that the drama started by a former tánaiste on Wednesday morning in Government Buildings?

We’re mixing up our events here.

Let’s go again.


Creating our Future: a National Conversation on Research in Ireland was launched by Micheál Martin in the Bots on Wednesday.

That’s the one.

The other was sprung by Simon Coveney during Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting in Merrion Street.

Understandable confusion, under the circumstances.

The Taoiseach must have hoped unveiling a “national brainstorm” would detract from the minor sh**storm enveloping his Coalition following the surprise appointment of a minister from the last government to a freshly created UN special envoy job.

This plum networking role was handed to former independent TD Katherine Zappone by her erstwhile Fine Gael cabinet chums Coveney (now Minister for Foreign Affairs) and his party leader Leo Varadkar (now Tánaiste). And the thing is: they didn’t think to tell their Fianna Fáil Taoiseach about it until the last minute, springing Zappone’s selection on him, almost as a fait accompli, during a packed end-of-term Cabinet meeting.

News of US-based Zappone’s new role quickly went public, leaving noses considerably out of joint at the Fianna Fáil end of the Coalition arrangement. Huffed word went out that a “blindsided” Micheál Martin was not at all happy with Coveney and Varadkar’s cavalier act of former cabinet collective responsibility.

Nonetheless, he seemed in high spirits when he joined Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris in the National Botanic Gardens to give his blessing to the “Creating our Future” initiative, which encourages the public to directly suggest ideas to the researchers and innovators using science to shape the development of society in years to come.

Micheál was probably in good form because he is looking forward to getting away for a short holiday over the bank holiday weekend.

When Harris declared, “Today is the day we stop talking to ourselves”, the Taoiseach, fair play to him, resisted the urge to harrumph, “About time, pity Fine Gael didn’t think of that before Cabinet yesterday.” Nor did he throw his eyes to heaven (well, not much) when Simon kept talking about “having a national conversation”.

Having the chats

Never mind national conversations, what about telling Varadkar and Coveney about having the chats with their Government leader before giving out big jobs?

Of course, the Botanic Gardens would put anyone in good humour. The place looks smashing. The launch was held in one of the beautiful Victorian glasshouses. Micheál was surrounded by rows of clay pots, nodding begonias and geranium heads. He must have felt like he was back at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, even if there were only a few minor leaks when the heavens opened and the rain poured down. The leaks would scarcely have registered on the MacSharry Scale, which the scientists present would have told us is an instrument for measuring political effluence.

Simon Harris, as ever, was very keen to talk. And while his national conversation on research is a very good idea and it’s worth popping over to the “Creating our Future” website to find out more, the journalists really only wanted to talk about Katherine Zappone, how she came to be a special envoy, how annoyed the Taoiseach was and if Simon Coveney said “sorry” for going on a Foreign Affairs solo run.

Despite repeated questioning, Micheál insisted it was an “oversight” by his vastly experienced constituency colleague Coveney, who oversaw the appointment but overlooked “procedures”. So too did Varadkar, along with their respective advisers.

“We move on now, it’s an issue you have to keep in perspective,” murmured the Taoiseach, not unreasonably, pointing out we are in the middle of a pandemic. “Leave it at that.” But, for the record, “Simon rang last night... he accepts fully it was an oversight in terms of the process and all of that. All in good faith and we move on.”

And they did, for a quick turn around the gardens, resplendent in full summer glory.

But danger lurked in the distance. Five gleaming white dresses. Dear God, was this the return of the protesting brides-to-be from the day before?

No. Worse again, albeit in the loveliest possible way. It was a group of very excited little girls all decked out in their First Holy Communion finery, having just received the sacrament in a local church. But wait. Are Communions and Confirmations not verboten under current restrictions?

Their mammies were also very excited when the saw the Taoiseach barrelling obliviously in their direction.

“Look at the man over there. There! Look! In the blue suit. He runs the country. Go over to him. RUN OVER TO HIM NOW!”

Made a beeline

For a delicious few seconds you could see a “bloody hell, what do we do now?” expression of fear cross the faces of Micheál and his Minister. Then they put on their best smiles and made a beeline for the communicants and their delighted parents.

“Go say hello to him. You’ll never meet him again,” said one of the mammies, pushing her little one towards the Taoiseach. “Oh, wait, he’s coming our way.”

“How are you all keeping?” cooed Micheál. “Have a wonderful day. And enjoy.”

“Congratulations,” gurgled Simon, voice untypically trailing off as he said something about the rain keeping away.

“It’s been a funny old year,” remarked the Taoiseach, to everyone.

The girls from St Brigid’s GNS in Glasnevin were waiting a year to make their First Communion and had four cancellations. Micheál made sympathetic noises as the photographers went into overdrive.

How do these things happen? Having extricated himself from a lengthy grilling on the embarrassing Zappone issue, he suddenly finds himself exchanging pleasantries with a group of Covid-restricted communicants. How will the photos go down in communities around the country where the boys and girls still haven’t had their day out yet thanks to his Government?

One of the mothers rushed to explain that there hadn’t been a big parish ceremony. Instead, the local priest has been offering the sacrament to small groups of pupils after the normal 10 o’clock mass, when possible. “He just slots in a few at a time. Otherwise they don’t know when they’ll have it.”

“I appreciate that,” replied the Taoiseach, looking relieved.

“Innovation,” chirruped Simon.

The leader of the country explained to the children: “It isn’t easy for us to make all these decisions. I know it’s kind of difficult and annoying...”

Apologies about that.

He wished them all the best for next year. “Have a wonderful time. Have a wonderful day.”

“Thank yoooo!” chorused the little girls. “Byeeee!”

Micheál and Simon were already retreating towards the half-hardy annuals and a photo opportunity by the Sweet Pea with sample questions for the Create our Future project.

Here’s some more:

So what exactly is Katherine Zappone’s job?

How can two experienced senior politicians forget to tell the Taoiseach something potentially embarrassing to their own Government?

Is there anything to be said for another Mass?